BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Carran and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2021-125 (20 December 2021)

Members
  • Susie Staley MNZM (Chair)
  • John Gillespie
  • Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i
Dated
Complainant
  • Scott Carran
Number
2021-125
Programme
Breakfast
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary  

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that an interview between Indira Stewart and Hon Judith Collins as part of Breakfast’s ‘weekly check-in’ with the Leader of the Opposition breached the balance and accuracy standards. While acknowledging the robust and heated nature of the interview, the Authority found that as the segment was an interview with the Leader of the Opposition, and provided her with the opportunity to respond at length, the balance standard was not breached. Further, while the complainant considered Stewart’s line of questioning and comments to be uninformed and inaccurate, the Authority found that these were not ‘statements of fact’ to which the accuracy standard applied.

Not Upheld: Balance and Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]  On 1 September 2021, Breakfast host Indira Stewart interviewed National Party leader Hon Judith Collins as part of a ‘weekly check-in’. The interview covered a range of topics including the National Party’s decision not to support a plan for virtual sittings of Parliament following the latest COVID-19 outbreak, her decision to travel to Wellington to attend Parliament, the vaccination rollout, and her involvement with the Pacific community following the outbreak. The interview became heated as Collins suggested that Stewart’s questions were more about her personally than other important topics, and accused Stewart of talking over her.

[2]  The following is an example of an exchange during the interview, which was preceded by some discussion around the National Party’s decision not to support virtual sittings of Parliament:

Indira Stewart:          …There are many industries that are 'nice to have,' and in fact, so many of our reporters in the newsroom are having to stay home and do work. So many of our managers are having to stay home and work from online. And if you talk about essential - because I've heard you say there are essential workers like supermarkets, people on the borderline defence who are out there working every day and if they have to do it, so do you. But actually, I know a couple of supermarket workers personally who I've spoken to who have said to me many times before - if they could do their work, their job from home or online, like anybody else, to protect themselves and their families, they would do that at the drop of a hat, but they cannot do that because their jobs just cannot operate in that way. And so to use that as a defence makes no sense, in the fact that you could not have done that virtually.

Judith Collins:           OK so ask the Prime Minister, Indira, why is she here every day working? Why isn't she doing it from Zoom? Why isn't she? Why did she, Chris Hipkins her Minister for COVID response and Grant Robertson, her Finance Minister, all fly from Auckland to Wellington after they knew that COVID was in the community and before they knew the full extent of it. Why was that? And the answer is because they know that it's an important job and so is the Opposition. It is an important job and we have to ask those questions because you're more interested in talking about me Indira, than you are talking about the vaccines. The one issue that we raised yesterday, over and over again, and I'll continue to do it, because that's why we're in lockdown.

Stewart:           (Overspeaking) No I'm talking about safety and risk in our community - I'm talking about minimizing safety and risk in our community because essentially that's what the decision to travel comes down to and I want to go take it back to scrutiny because I agree with you - I think a strong opposition being able to question the Government is healthy for everybody. And it's what New Zealanders all want, but don't you think you would have had a more effective debate and democratic debate if that meeting yesterday was done virtually? There was barely anybody in the room and you would have had more access to more Ministers and more people would have been able to show up so you could interrogate them effectively. How democratic was that yesterday when there were just -

Collins:            (Overspeaking) Sorry Indira, are you going to ask me the question or are you going to answer it as well? Let's just stick to this. Trevor Mallard set the rules as to who could be in Parliament. He set the rules as to how many people were there. He said only three MPs in the National Party could be there. Ask him about it because we've run Parliament before under level three and we've been able to do it. If the Prime Minister was worried about it, she could have suspended Parliament like she did last week. She chose not to. This has become now simply about attacking the Opposition for asking the questions. If the Prime Minister was worried, tell me this. Why is a parliamentary crèche open? Tell me that. And the answer is - it's simply, simply, don't attack me for asking the questions that you and the rest of the media should be asking the Prime Minister and I'll continue to ask the questions -

Stewart:           (Overspeaking) I think they're - I think they're fair questions to ask of you, given the decision that you made. And so let's talk about vaccinations.

Collins:            (Overspeaking) You're talking over the top of me Indira. You're talking over the top of me. Let's get on to vaccinations. That's what I'm here for. That's what I ask questions for. That's what all the opposition members ask questions about, because that's important.

The complaint

[3]  Scott Carran complained the item breached the balance and accuracy standards, arguing ‘Indira Stewart’s attack on Judith Collins attending Parliament lacked both balance and accuracy’. He submitted:

  • The focus of the interview was on the risk associated with the Leader of the Opposition travelling to Wellington (which is ‘extremely low’), and ‘was not balanced against Jacinda Ardern’s unprecedented and outrageous attempt to either suspend parliament, or to limit the ability to question the competence of the [Government’s] vaccine roll-out’.
  • The continued operation of Parliament is fundamental to democracy, and the COVID-19 outbreak was small at the time of the interview (in comparison to international outbreaks).
  • Stewart’s questioning ‘was so trivial, [uninformed] and biased that I firmly believe that was politically motivated’.

The broadcaster’s response

[4]  TVNZ did not uphold the complaint under the balance and accuracy standards, stating that:

Balance

  • The interview ‘canvassed a variety of issues that could reasonably be considered controversial issues of public importance’, (as is required for the balance standard to apply).
  • However, ‘within the programme’s narrow and clearly defined scope – an interview with Mrs Collins alone, as the Leader of the Opposition, discussing issues relating to herself, her role concerning the portfolio of Pacific peoples and the National Party, viewers would not reasonably have expected to have been presented with a range of alternative perspectives’.
  • ‘In any case, the issues in question were discussed widely in surrounding media coverage at the time, so it is reasonable to expect that viewers would be aware of alternative viewpoints that existed.’

Accuracy

  • As the complainant had not pointed to any inaccuracies in the programme, it did not identify any breach of the accuracy standard.

Jurisdiction - fairness standard

[5]  Upon referral to the Authority, the complainant sought to raise the fairness standard as well. In response, TVNZ noted that upon receiving the original complaint, it had specifically gone back and asked the complainant which standards he wished to have his complaint considered under, and he confirmed the standards of balance and accuracy.

[6]  Under section 8(1B) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority is only able to consider complaints under the standard(s) raised in the original complaint to the broadcaster. However, in limited circumstances, the Authority can consider standards not raised in the original complaint where it can be reasonably implied into the wording.1

[7]  In this instance, we do not consider the fairness standard can be reasonably implied into the wording of the original complaint (which is focused on issues of balance and accuracy). Accordingly, we do not consider it in this decision.

[8]  In any event, we note there is a high threshold for finding a breach of the fairness standard in relation to public figures and politicians (who are familiar with dealing with the media).2

The standards

[9]  The balance standard3 states when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs, and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view. This can be in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest. The purpose of this standard is to ensure competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to come to an informed and reasoned opinion.4

[10]  The accuracy standard5 protects the public from being significantly misinformed.6 It states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead.

Our Analysis

[11]  We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[12]  We recognise the value of robust political discourse in the media and the role of media in holding to account those in positions of power. This enables the public to be informed and engaged, which is critical to a free and democratic society. When we consider a complaint that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards, we weigh the value of the programme, and the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.

Balance

[13]  When we consider a complaint under the balance standard, we must first assess whether the broadcast discussed a controversial issue of public importance. An issue of public importance is something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public.7 A controversial issue will be one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.8

[14]  As outlined in paragraph [1], the interview covered a range of topics including the National Party’s decision not to support a plan for virtual sittings of Parliament following the latest COVID-19 outbreak, Collins’ decision to travel to Wellington to attend Parliament, the vaccination rollout, and her involvement with the Pacific community following the outbreak. The complainant was specifically concerned with the content focussed on Collins’ decision to travel to Wellington, which he considered to be unbalanced.

[15]  We accept that the question of whether it was appropriate for Collins to travel to Wellington to attend Parliament (following her party’s decision to oppose virtual sittings of Parliament) constituted a controversial issue of public importance at the time of the broadcast in the context of a COVID-19 outbreak. Such issues are of concern to the New Zealand public and are controversial, as they are likely to inspire conflicting opinions and debate. Accordingly, the balance standard applies.

[16]  The nature of the broadcast is relevant to the assessment of whether a reasonable range of perspectives have been presented.9 In this case, the segment was introduced as Breakfast’s ‘weekly check-in’ with the National Party leader Judith Collins. It did not purport to be a comprehensive examination of each issue discussed. Given it was an interview with the National Party leader specifically, viewers could expect it to canvas her and her party’s views, which it did. This included her perspective on the issue of travel to Wellington.

[17]  Viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of other views and perspectives on this issue, especially given the heightened topical interest at the time.10

[18]  The complainant’s submissions, in part, appeared to identify interviewer bias as a foundation for a complaint under the balance standard. However, as previously noted, the purpose of the balance standard is to ensure competing viewpoints on significant issues are presented to enable viewers to arrive at their own informed and reasoned opinions.11 Where reasonable opportunities to present such viewpoints are given, any perspective or bias of an interviewer will not result in a breach of this standard.12

[19]  In this case, as noted above, Collins was given the opportunity to explain her decision to travel. While the interviewing was robust, we consider it to be in line with audience expectations of an interview involving the Leader of the Opposition who inevitably has extensive media experience. We also note that it is a common interview technique for interviewers to take a position and challenge the interviewee from that position.13

[20]  Given the above, we find no breach of the balance standard.

Accuracy

[21]  The accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.14

[22]  While the complainant considered Stewart’s line of questioning and comments in relation to Collins travelling to Wellington to attend Parliament to be uninformed and ‘inaccurate’, we do not consider them to be statements of fact to which the accuracy standard applies. Rather, they represent comment, analysis or opinion presented as opportunities for Collins to provide explanations for her views and actions.

[23]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Susie Staley MNZM
Chair
20 December 2021

 


Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1  Scott Carran’s formal complaint to TVNZ – 1 September 2021

2  Email correspondence between Carran and TVNZ – 1 September 2021

3  TVNZ’s decision on the complaint – 28 September 2021

4  Carran’s referral to the Authority – 12 October 2021

5 TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 17 November 2021


1 See Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Limited, CIV-2011-485-1110 at [62]
2 See, for example, Hagger and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2020-032 and Marra and MediaWorks Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2019-023
3 Standard 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
4 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
5 Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
6 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
7 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
8 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
9 Guideline 8c
10 See for example: Stuff (27 August 2021) “Covid-19 NZ: National and ACT reject plan for virtual Parliament and Question Time” <www.stuff.co.nz> and NZ Herald (31 August 2021) “Covid 19 Delta outbreak: National leader Judith Collins fires back at PM Jacinda Ardern over criticism for travel to Parliament” <www.nzherald.co.nz>
11 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
12 See Garrett and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-079 at [19]
13 As above, at [16]
14 Guideline 9a